And a voice came from heaven, “This is my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of the Lord Jesus brings the great celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany to their conclusion. The birth of the Savior and his various public manifestations recalled in the Scriptures come to their full meaning, in a real sense, in the Baptism of Jesus. Thus this final celebration of the Christmas Season has many wonderful theological meanings and important implications for our salvation. We cannot leave this holy season without reflecting on these truths of our faith.
First, At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan we see the manifestation of the Redeemer in a fully public setting, before Jew and Gentile and now in the fullness of his manhood. The previous public manifestations were somewhat private, involving only a few representative people, the shepherds, representing God’s chosen people, and the magi, representing the rest of the nations. But here the manifestation is much more public, and it actually marks the beginning of the public life and mission of our Savior.
Secondly, His baptism in the Jordan by John serves to point us toward the true identity of the Savior, the Messiah. This revelation begins with the direct testimony from heaven by God the Father: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son,'” and a second testimony by God the Holy Spirit who visibly descends upon Christ in the form of a dove, the ancient symbol of God’s peace. At the same time, though quite secondarily, John himself testifies to the utterly transcendent dignity of Jesus and his infinite power: “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And John confirms this testimony
by his real hesitancy to carry out the baptism, as we read today in Matthew’s account. John, under the inspiration of the Spirit, recognizes the transcendent holiness of Jesus and declares, “It is I who should be baptized by you.” Thus John recognizes, perhaps for the first time, the aura of the divine holiness in Jesus, and he quite naturally draws back in awe and fear, for no man, including the saintly herald John can be at ease in the presence of the divine. Peter will react in a similar way at the great catch of fish when he recognizes the presence of the divine in Jesus: “Lord depart from me for I am a sinful man.”
The testimony to Jesus’ divine identity, which even John does not fully grasp at this point in time, concludes with the marvelous theophany, that is, with a manifestation of the Triune God and Jesus’ place in this Holy Trinity. The dove, the Son of Man and the voice of the Father, all speak of who this man truly is – This is my beloved Son. That is who Jesus is, this man humbly standing in the waters of the Jordan is truly the Eternal Son of the Father who testifies on His behalf; true God from true God, as we profess in our Creed.
The appearance of the dove is the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and it recalls the original destructive flood from which man was rescued by God. This dove now appears as the sign of the new peace between God and sinful mankind, the sign of a new life, a starting over for creation. The implications are clear, that what is happening there in the Jordan points to a whole new life for mankind, a new peace between God and his wayward children.
Nonetheless, the central focus of the theophany is definitely on the person of Jesus, who is not simply identified as the Messiah, endowed with a divine aura – John’s testimony – but as the beloved Son of the One who speaks, and the One over whom the Spirit hovers in a unique way. He is not just a beloved son in some metaphorical sense, as sometimes occurs in the Old Testament, with reference to men like David, but the beloved Son in a totally unique sense, “This is my beloved son” is a kind of parallel with the unique way Jesus will speak of the Father, as my Father, as Abba – my beloved Father – which is totally unique to Jesus; his disciples will only speak of Our Father, but Jesus always speaks of my Father. He is the beloved, the man who allows John to Baptize Him in the Jordan that day.
The third theological aspect of this event has to do with the mission of the Son who is being baptized by John, that is, why Jesus has come and why this is the beginning of a whole new world and new life for mankind. John’s baptism was a spiritual bathing with water alone, a mere symbol of man’s desire for an interior cleansing from sin. But John testifies that Jesus will baptize with water and the Holy Spirit, that is, with a divine power that will not merely symbolize an interior cleansing but a power that will really and truly cause what it signifies, radically cleansing the soul of all sin and transforming the sinner into a true child of God. This is surely why we celebrate this feast of the Baptism of the Lord within the Christmas Season which celebrates the birth of the Savior. His Baptism celebrates our rebirth through the sacrament he establishes in the waters of the Jordan.
Thus the power of the Sacrament Baptism which Jesus initiates here by sanctifying the waters of this world is truly a divine power that infinitely surpasses the form of baptism practiced by John, just as Jesus himself infinitely surpasses the person of John, because he is truly divine. The baptism practiced by the Church, instituted by her divine Master and signified in the Jordan, is a true re-creation, a true cleansing from sin and the beginning of a new, supernatural life.
This theological truth clearly seems to be the whole point of John’s words, “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The Spirit is surely the fountain of life for this is the same Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation and brought forth life. Now this same Spirit cleanses the soul of man with fire to give mankind a true new beginning, to give each of us a newly purified soul capable of receiving a new life, a share in the very Life of God, utterly supernatural, utterly divine.
This is the revealed truth about our own Baptism, that it is a rebirth, a new creation, a new life purified of all sin, and all of this meaning is present by implication in the Baptism of Jesus. His Baptism, as many Church Fathers teach, sanctifies water itself, sacramentalizing creation itself, by making the lowly element of water capable of communicating the very power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus became man to make us divine, and this mystery begins in the waters of Baptism, the sacrament that is made possible by the Baptism of Jesus in the waters of the Jordan.
Finally, we can see how this great epiphany of Jesus at the Jordan, which identifies his person and mission, is such a great contradiction to the great manifestations of earthly powers in human history. Earthly Emperors and Kings manifested their greatness with the greatest pomp and self-glorification. But here Jesus comes in humility and a certain hiddenness, associating himself with the lowly and the despised, with sinners in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Thus he marvelously fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah in today’s first reading: he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
However, Jesus will not accomplish His mission by means of power and self-glorification, but as the prophet foretells: not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench. He will not bring justice by the exercise of great earthly power, the way earthly powers act, but by being a “light to the nations.” He will conquer man by truth and self-sacrifice, not by power and the sacrifice of others. He will conquer our hearts with humility and gentleness and self-abnegation, all of which seem like madness to the worldly, to earthly powers. But His way is the mysterious way of God, and He is destined one day to triumph over all evil, over sin and death and over injustice and man’s monstrous pride.
So the Lord continues his mission of salvation in just this unexpected way through the ages, by the preaching of the Truth, by sanctifying through the sacraments of salvation, by the sacrifice of the blood of martyrs and by the self-abnegation of the whole Church. And we are all a part of all this incredible drama of salvation from the day of our Baptism, if we truly accept Him and subordinate ourselves in order to manifest Him, and if we truly will accept and embrace his way of salvation rather than the way of the world. That will be the victory of Justice.